An Interview With Joe Abercrombie on BEST SERVED COLD
Did you find the experience of writing BEST SERVED COLD, a standalone novel, to be more challenging than writing the First Law Trilogy?
I did find it more challenging, I think mostly because I’d had the ideas and characters for The First Law cooking in my head for a very long time – right the way back to childhood in some cases – so that when I started writing a lot came out quite easily, and more and more easily as I went along. Also when I started writing The Blade Itself I was doing it purely for the fun of it, as a hobby, with no pressure at all, so I was free to take as much time as I wanted, and experiment with what worked. For Best Served Cold I had to come up with new characters and settings and implement them on a much tighter schedule, with some level of expectation from readers and publishers, which is a very different challenge. Although the plot was, in a way, much more straightforward than with the First Law, it took a long time for me to really get a feel for the characters in Best Served Cold. It wasn’t until I’d pretty much finished the first draft that I felt I’d got the voice for some of them, particularly Monza, anywhere near right. Then it was a case of revising the rest of the book to match.
How did you develop the idea for the novel?
Seven ‘villains’ for Monza to wreak vengeance on felt like a good number, and so it seemed like a good idea as well that there should be seven ‘heroes’ (and I’m using hero and villain in their loosest possible senses, of course). I filled as many of those roles as I thought was reasonable with characters readers might already have met in the First Law, because although I wanted the book to stand alone I also wanted there to be some reward and feeling of continuation for people who’d read the trilogy before. The book split naturally into seven parts, in each of which Monza and her motley group of helpers visit a different city and try to kill the next man on the list. I tried to make each effort different in nature, and in some way to reflect the character both of the target and the city the events takes place in, and also for the scale of the plots and the numbers of people involved to steadily grow, so that hopefully the tone of each part is different enough to keep the reader interested. I then approached each part separately, planning it in detail before writing it, and to some degree letting the overall story develop as it seemed appropriate in each part. I try to plan pretty carefully in advance, but at the same time you have to give the plot a bit of room to squirm around as new ideas come to you and the characters take on firmer personalities.
Monza Murcatto is a brilliantly intriguing character. Who or what were your inspirations in creating her?
It’s always difficult to say exactly where the ideas for characters come from, since often the basic idea will just seem to be there in your head when you begin, but the details only develop as you write the book and get a sense for how they talk, think, and behave. The First Law had been a very male set of books, and so I wanted to try my hand at a female main character. I’d always been fascinated by renaissance Italy, the complex and treacherous politics of feuding city-states, the mixture of terrible destruction and wild creativity, the poisonous popes, the intriguing merchants, the rampaging mercenaries, and so I took that as my inspiration for setting. The book was intended to be a fantasy thriller, and I wanted my central character to have one foot in the underworld, but the other in the political world. A mercenary general seemed perfect – as well as having the ideal skill-set for a revenger. I also felt since the leadership of mercenary companies tended to be pretty fluid and more based on merit than birth or tradition, a female mercenary leader was believable, and not without historical precedent. Then it was a case of thinking about what characteristics such a woman would need to have to succeed in such a male-dominated sphere as war. Some personal capacity for violence was clearly important, but ruthlessness, intelligence, dedication, and superhuman single-mindedness seemed even more so. An acid sense of humor wouldn’t hurt either. Then it was a question of seeing whether I could make such a character in any way sympathetic to the reader…
As one of the main progenitors of the subgenre known as ‘scoundrel lit’, how do you feel about the direction the genre is moving in?
I tend to think of it as Unheroic Fantasy, but certainly there seems to be a real current within epic fantasy lately towards darker, ‘grittier’, more morally ambiguous, more character-centered writing. I heartily approve of it because it’s to my personal taste, but also because I feel that epic fantasy had become a bit repetitive and predictable and variety has got to be a good thing. George RR Martin I think was very important in demonstrating that this kind of work could be commercially successful, that you could produce books that were recognizably epic fantasy – and gave readers everything they hoped for from the form – but at the same time were unpredictable, challenging, and unapologetically adult in every sense of the word. But guys like Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance were writing morally questionable heroes and seedy settings long before I was born, so I’m not sure I regard myself as any kind of progenitor, just a humble practitioner in a long and proud tradition.
Alright, not so humble…
Your books are often compared to films. Does your film editing background often influence your books? If so, how?
I spent ten years or so as a freelance editor, mostly working on live music (concerts, festivals, and awards shows) and documentaries. Certainly that was important experience. I think it gave me a good idea of timing, of how to come into and out of a scene, of how you can cut between different strands of action to get the most drama out of both. I was also lucky to see some really skilled producers work on scripts for documentary, where the aim is often to tell the story in the shortest, most economical number of words. But above all I think it taught me how to get on with people, and the value of listening to other’s opinions and making changes. As an editor you can’t be too precious – you do your best with the material, but if a director, producer, or client wants something different you have to make changes. You might resent that to begin with, but often you find looking again with the benefit of a new viewpoint allows you to make improvements. The same is true of a writer. You need to be able to listen to your editor, listen to the opinions of readers, and not necessarily do exactly what they tell you, but always be looking for ways to improve what you’re doing.
Will we see previous characters returning in your next novel? Maybe even Murcatto?
Having finished The First Law I really wanted to write some standalone books set in the same world, which could be accessible to new readers and serve as a jumping in point but that hopefully, at the same time, would serve as some kind of continuation of the life of the world for readers who had read the trilogy. So I wanted there to be plenty of characters in common – for major characters from the trilogy to appear in the background of the standalones while minor characters took center stage. I enjoy the sense of threads coming in and out of the narrative, of the nods and references that long-term readers might pick up on and the sense it gives of a complete, interconnected world. The next novel takes place in the North, so we’ll see a lot of the Northman characters from The First Law making an appearance – Black Dow, Caul Shivers, Princes Calder and Scale, among others, as well as quite a few Union soldiers – Kroy, Jalenhorm, Bremer dan Gorst. Even a certain Magus makes an appearance. Most of the characters from Best Served Cold are sitting this one out, but they’ll be there on the bench in case I need them in the future…
What can you tell us about your next novel?
It’s called The Heroes, and is the story of one battle for control of the North, most of the book taking place in the same location and over the course of three days. It follows six characters as they variously take part in the fighting or try to avoid it, as their paths cross and interweave throughout the course of the battle. On the Union side we have the most disreputable corporal in His Majesty’s whole army, the venomously ambitious daughter of the Marshal in command, and a depressive master swordsman who once served as the king’s bodyguard. With the Northmen we have a hard-bitten veteran who’s losing his nerve, a young lad eager to prove himself a warrior, and a disinherited prince eager to reclaim his father’s throne by any means necessary, apart from fighting. So where Best Served Cold was a fantasy thriller, The Heroes is a fantasy war story, that attempts to investigate the whole notion of heroism. My five second pitch is Lord of the Rings meets a Bridge Too Far.